Netflix crime doc 'Strong Island' painfully explores what it means to be a black victim in America

September 14th 2017

What does it mean to be a victim? What does it mean to be a black victim in America?

In Strong Island, director Yance Ford retraces the murder of his older brother William Ford Jr., by a white mechanic, who claimed that fear caused him to commit the act after the two had an argument following an earlier auto collision where the mechanic was at fault. Deft and personal, the documentary examines the ways in which racism, apathy, and silence not only killed Yance’s brother, but killed the dreams that their parents had for the family.

Shot over the course of ten years, the documentary reopens a murder case that an all-white grand jury closed in 1992, deciding not to indict the mechanic, Mark Reilly, concluding that his fear was reasonable. William was unarmed. Ford carefully deconstructs this conclusion, not by interviewing those directly involved in the grand jury investigation (some of whom refuse to discuss the case, with the exception of one detective), but by speaking with his mother, Barbara, his sister, Lauren, his brother’s friends, former assistant district attorneys, and turning the camera on himself in evocatively-lit portraits, as he parses through the pain and guilt he’s endured in the years since William’s death.

At the beginning of the film, Ford establishes the historical context of the story. His parents were South Carolina transplants seeking a better life in New York City during the Great Migration. In a captivating interview, his mother Barbara, tells of how her own father died of an asthma attack because he could only be admitted to a busy colored waiting room, instead of receiving the care he needed in the “whites only” section of the hospital. As she shares this story, we see a shot of Ford’s hands laying his grandfather’s black and white photo before us. His grandfather’s spirit comes alive in this moment. After migrating to New York City, Ford’s parents- a school principal and Subway conductor- eventually bought a house in the Central Islip neighborhood of Long Island, only to occupy a newly segregated area where many of the city’s black civil servants also live.

Through the course of the film, Ford manages to avoid easy answers in the exploration of grief, silence and his own inability to disclose some key information related up to the murder, to his mother, and to us as an audience. The film made me ponder what it means to take accountability for your silence in the wake of death, trauma, and injustice. This is not a film about a romanticized battle for justice, in the way that we are used to seeing. Ford is interested in the quiet moments where grief is unbearable, and how people survive that- when a husband and wife embrace in a dark bedroom over the death of their son, when a husband shuts down emotionally, when a mother feels she’s failed a child, or when a sister seeks refuge outside of the home because the memory of her brother is too much. Yance, a transgender man who was a woman at the time of William’s murder, also ruminates on his brother not knowing he was queer before he died, thus not knowing him fully. These are the interior battles that plague this family, and result in further death.

Photo: Netflix Photo: Netflix

In the same way that easy conclusions aren’t drawn in the narrative, William is not shown to be a perfect, straight A-student who excelled at everything; a problematic narrative which is often used to validate young black people when their lives are taken, or to invalidate them all the same. In a series of scenes, Ford reads his brother’s journal entries, allowing us entry into the interior life of this man, his romantic longing, his goals to lose weight and become a corrections officer, and his fears. We learn later that he was instrumental in helping an assistant district attorney, David Breen, escape death when he was shot outside of a bank. He is hailed as a hero. A dual narrative then emerges- one of a hero chasing down a gunman, and a scary black man capable of evoking instant fear in others. It is fascinating the way that these narratives run parallel to one another.

It is fascinating, and disturbing the way history seems to repeat itself. Like his grandfather, left to die in that colored waiting room, his grandson suffered a similar fate- their blackness a pre-determining factor in whether they deserved to continue breathing. They were not deemed victims, their family not given the consideration of having lost a loved one. Before the murder, a narrative had already formed. Yance Ford reclaims that narrative. Shots of an auto body shop, a man falling to the ground, and a subway platform help drive home the circular nature of history and memory.This documentary is important, not just as personal investigation, but as a statement against official records- the countless cases where indictments aren’t reached, where cases are closed, where young people are pressured to take plea bargains and not given a fair trial- there’s a narrative there, and we need to know it. We need to know that William Ford Jr. didn’t have to die.

This documentary is important, not just as personal investigation, but as a statement against official records- the countless cases where indictments aren’t reached, where cases are closed, where young people are pressured to take plea bargains and not given a fair trial- there’s a narrative there, and we need to know it. We need to know that William Ford Jr. didn’t have to die.


Nijla Mu’min is an award-winning writer and filmmaker from the East Bay Area. She is currently in post-production on her feature film debut, “Jinn.”  Visit her website here.

by Nijla Mumin on September 14th 2017

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